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Finding sources to cite is easy 5 Ways To Get Your Hands On Academic Papers Without Losing Your Mind (And Money) 5 Ways To Get Your Hands On Academic Papers Without Losing Your Mind (And Money) For a lot of people academic journals are hard to get hold of. They are also expensive. But with the right tools, you can get your hands on any academic journals you want. Read More . Planning a paper is easy. Sitting down and writing the thing? Much harder, and though there’s no shortage of word processors, not all are well-suited to academic writing.

As someone currently working on my dissertation, I know this problem all too well. So I found five popular Mac applications commonly used for academic writing and reviewed each in order to see which excelled the most when it comes to writing college papers and dissertations.

Here’s what I found.

Ulysses ($45)

At just short of $45, Ulysses is one of the more expensive applications in this rundown. I reviewed version 2.0, which runs exclusively on 64-bit Macs running Yosemite. There’s also an iPad version ($19.99), which Bakari reviewed recently Ulysses, Pages & Write: 3 Very Different Writing Tools for iPad Ulysses, Pages & Write: 3 Very Different Writing Tools for iPad We're no strangers to the Mac versions of Pages and Ulysses or the earlier version of Write for iOS, but which is of these apps is best for writing on your iPad? Read More .

Ulysses is, like Desk and iA Writer, a markdown-oriented text editor. Markdown allows you to format text using a special syntax, rather than pressing a button in an application. The advantage of this is that it doesn’t break your workflow, and text written in MarkDown can be copied between applications without losing formatting.

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Another advantage of Markdown is that it’s incredibly easy to learn, not just because we published a guide Learning Markdown: Write For The Web, Faster Learning Markdown: Write For The Web, Faster Markdown is essentially a syntax language for formatting text as you write. It’s fast, and built for people who write for the web. Read More to it last year. Ulysses is different from other markdown editors in a number of ways that distinguish it from the pack.

Firstly, it allows you to separate texts into individual sections, each within their own writing space. This is handy if your university project is effectively an anthology of texts, as most dissertations are.

Secondly, Ulysses allows you to change the theme from a bright one, to a more subdued night-mode version which looks great when working in the dark. It also comes with a command palette that feels oddly reminiscent of Sublime Text 2 Try Out Sublime Text 2 For Your Cross-Platform Code Editing Needs Try Out Sublime Text 2 For Your Cross-Platform Code Editing Needs Sublime Text 2 is a cross-platform code editor I only recently heard about, and I have to say I'm really impressed despite the beta label. You can download the full app without paying a penny... Read More , which allows you to navigate your document without endlessly scrolling, just like Vim The Top 7 Reasons To Give The Vim Text Editor A Chance The Top 7 Reasons To Give The Vim Text Editor A Chance For years, I've tried one text editor after another. You name it, I tried it. I used each and every one of these editors for over two months as my primary day-to-day editor. Somehow, I... Read More .

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Ulysses also makes it easy to set goals, which is handy when you’re unmotivated and trudging through the tedium of a literature review. Unfortunately it doesn’t natively support any major reference managers, such as EndNote and Zotero Take The Stress Out Of Referencing With Zotero Take The Stress Out Of Referencing With Zotero Essays are dry. They're time consuming. They're dull. And the worst part of it? Referencing. Thankfully, there's an app out there making referencing less frustrating. Read More , and it doesn’t allow you to embed images or graphics.

Despite these limitations, it’s a perfectly adequate markdown editor, and one that lends itself favorably to academic applications.

iA Writer Pro ($20)

I’m a fan of iA Writer. We reviewed the non-pro iA Writer for Mac & iOS: The Best Word Processor You've Never Used iA Writer for Mac & iOS: The Best Word Processor You've Never Used Be it a school paper or a blog post, all of us at some point find ourselves in the position of having to dump a bunch of characters into a text file. While cell phone... Read More version of it back in 2013 and it immediately became my writing application of choice. Why?

The app is markdown-based, so you can add formatting as you write without getting distracted or having your writing pane filled with superfluous toolbars and ribbons. It also allows you to focus on the writing, as it puts the text in the center of your screen and a simple, readable typeface contrasts with the austere, white background.

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That’s the cheaper, non-pro version. I’ve since moved on to the professional version, and I’m convinced it too is an excellent choice for markdown aficionados tasked with academic writing.

iA Writer Pro comes all the same features of the cheaper version that allow you to focus on the writing, but brings with it a ‘night mode’ theme, which is great for late night work.

It also allows you to drill-down on your text and identify parts of your writing you can remove and refactor, such as adverbs, verbs, and prepositions. Given academic writing strongly emphasizes conciseness and precision, this is really helpful.

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But iA Writer Pro is lacking some features that are helpful when it comes to academic writing. It doesn’t support third-party plugins, which makes it hard to import your citations in from Zotero, or any other reference manager. It also only lets you to work one document at a time, unlike Ulysses’s multi-sheet approach to document editing.

Despite those drawbacks, it’s only $20 and makes it easy to be focused and productive, and is therefore worth a consider.

Scrivener 2 ($45)

Scrivener is an inexpensive application with an excruciatingly steep learning curve. It’s commonly used by people working in the creative industries, and has found a niche as a tool for writing screenplays and scripts. But despite this pedigree, it is also worth considering for your next academic paper.

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Scrivener, like Ulysses, lets you break your document into manageable chunks, and tackle them one at a time. Editing is done through a graphical interface, with formatting added through the application, rather than using Markdown syntax.

But perhaps the killer feature of Scrivener is its ‘cork board’. This allows you to manage, collect, and collate resources you might want to use in your paper, such as images, notes and references.

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Scrivener supports a handful of popular third-party bibliography applications, which means you don’t have to adjust your system of managing citations and references. It also allows you to create snapshots – or versions – of your text, and revert back to them when you want to return to an earlier form of your work. This is similar to how Git works What Is Git & Why You Should Use Version Control If You’re a Developer What Is Git & Why You Should Use Version Control If You’re a Developer As web developers, a lot of the time we tend to work on local development sites then just upload everything when we’re done. This is fine when it’s just you and the changes are small,... Read More , which is a version control system used by programmers.

However, Scrivener lacks the sleek, distraction-free aesthetics of iA Writer and Ulysses, which makes it less than ideal for long writing sprints where your focus might wander. It’s also rather expensive, and takes a few hours (and a lot of reading) to fully get to grips with.

Microsoft Word 2016 Preview Edition (Free)

It’s hard not to talk about word processors, and not mention Microsoft Word. It’s the incumbent, and has been for a couple of decades now. Go to any university, and you’ll find Microsoft Word is the de-facto word processor. This due to that fact that it’s well understood, supported by Microsoft, and works well with other the packages in the Microsoft Office family.

Microsoft recently released the preview version of Word 2016, and is currently available as a free download before being publicly released.

This latest version represents the biggest change to Microsoft Word on OS X for almost 5 years. It comes with a sleek new aesthetic that makes it feel like the modern, premium word processor it is. For once, you’re going to want to write with Word.

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But as a tool for writing Academic papers, how does it stand up? Well, it’s not a distraction-free editor like iA Writer is, but that’s fine. It makes up for that by being well-rounded and complete, boasting all the features any university student or academic could possibly need.

One of the most compelling features for any student is its built-in citation manager, which offers many of the features of Zotero, and can produce references in APA, MLM and Chicago style.

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Unlike iA Writer Pro and Ulysses, Word allows you to insert and embed figures and graphics, and create charts that underscore the points you make.

This makes it one of the more compelling packages for academic writing. The only problem is that when it exits the beta phase, it will ultimately cost a good chunk of change. This free version will eventually cease to work, so you’ll have to purchase Word as part of the Office 2016 release if you want to keep the functionality you’ve gotten used to. In the Apple Store, Office 2011 costs $139.95, so expect Office 2016 to cost something approaching that.

It’s also worth noting that beta applications can ship with bugs that might end up destroying all your hard work. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to make regular backups if you decide to use it.

Pages (Free/$19.99)

Pages is part of iWork, Apple’s flagship productivity suite. Apple made it available free of charge to anyone who purchased Mac on or after October 1, 2013. Everyone else can purchase it for $19.99 on the Mac App Store, which is pretty good for a fully-fledged word processor.

As a tool for getting words on a page, it’s solid. It comes with a number of templates for academic writing. However, these overwhelmingly are geared towards a style of academic writing that’s more common in the American university system, than in the British and Antipodean ones. That said, it’s easy enough to tweak a template, and formatting text in Pages is simple enough for this not to be too much of a barrier.

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Pages also supports academic citations through EndNote, a perfectly competent though expensive reference manager, with a license costing around $250. The closest free alternative, Zotero, hasn’t released a plugin for iWork and given the niche status of Apple’s iWork when it comes to productivity software, I doubt they ever will.

Pages can also produce incredible graphics and charts with a button’s press. This makes it ideal for those writing papers with a somewhat data-driven emphasis.

For those on a tight budget, it remains the best option, and poses a serious challenge to the likes of Scrivener and Ulysses.

No Surprises Here

It should come as absolutely no surprise that the two packages I’m ultimately going to recommend are ones made by Microsoft and Apple; both giants in what they do. Pages and Word are just too complete and functional to not recommend, and offer the most value for money (at least while Word is free).

As a close second, I’d also recommend iA Writer Pro, which despite lacking a number of killer features like EndNote integration and bibliography management, offers the best writing experience of any application listed in my opinion.

What do you use to write your academic papers? Leave me a comment below and we’ll chat.

Image Credits: student with laptop Via Shutterstock

  1. Lawrie Cherniack
    April 18, 2015 at 10:26 pm

    Although it is expensive and was originally created for DOS and then Windows, but runs very well on WINE, the great Nota Bene, available at notabene.com at special pricing for students, is THE academic suite of tools for writing dissertations and theses. It combines an incredible powerful and intuitive word processor with a fantastic bibliography and text-based data processing program. You can download or enter bibliographical data only once and have it formatted for over 400 different style sheets. You can link notes to the works cited. And you can index every single word on your entire hard drive in seconds and search, using Boolean logic, ideas, keywords, phrases, and bring up the files and enter them into your thesis. It was designed by an academic for academics and it has saved hundreds of people thousands of hours. It has three levels of footnotes/endnotes. You can use a command line, the menu, a mouse, and even the Help files to do virtually anything, so the more you are familiar with the program the easier it becomes to work. The files are all ASCII files, so you can actually edit the formatting codes directly as well. I have been using this program since the DOS days and can attest to its power, speed, intuitiveness, and depth. There is also an incredible and supportive listserv.

  2. Lawrie Cherniack
    April 18, 2015 at 10:25 pm

    Although it is expensive and was originally created for DOS and then Windows, but runs very well on WINE, the great Nota Bene, available at notabene.com at special pricing for students, is THE academic suite of tools for writing dissertations and theses. It combines an incredible powerful and intuitive word processor with a fantastic bibliography and text-based data processing program. You can download or enter bibliographical data only once and have it formatted for over 400 different style sheets. You can link notes to the works cited. And you can index every single word on your entire hard drive in seconds and search, using Boolean logic, ideas, keywords, phrases, and bring up the files and enter them into your thesis. It was designed by an academic for academics and it has saved hundreds of people thousands of hours. It has three levels of footnotes/endnotes. You can use a command line, the menu, a mouse, and even the Help files to do virtually anything, so the more you are familiar with the program the easier it becomes to work. The files are all ASCII files, so you can actually edit the formatting codes directly as well. I have been using this program since the DOS days and can attest to its power, speed, intuitiveness, and depth. There is also an incredible and supportive listserv.

    • Matthew Hughes
      April 30, 2015 at 3:32 pm

      Never tried Nota Bene. Sounds interesting though!

  3. Michail Dim. Drakomathioulakis
    April 17, 2015 at 10:21 pm

    I don't get why "Ulysses is one of the more expensive applications in this rundown" and "Scrivener is an inexpensive application" when both are priced for $45...

    • Matthew Hughes
      April 30, 2015 at 3:31 pm

      Because Ulysses is a tabbed markdown editor, and Scrivener is a text editor on steroids that can do an insane amount of stuff.

  4. Ferite
    April 15, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    Over all. I'm a iWorks fan. Numbers and Keynote are excellent, but Pages has a lack of development – there missing really a lot of functionality which university student really need every day.

  5. Ferite
    April 15, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    iWork does not support automatic tables or images counting, links to another part of the same document and many many useful function that Microsoft support. Also missing support of text styles is really disappointing.

    • Matthew Hughes
      April 30, 2015 at 3:31 pm

      There's actually a workaround for images counting, where you create a new paragraph style, write your figures for the image using that style and then you build a table of contents which only lists that paragraph style.

      #TheMoreYouKnow.

  6. Hildegerd
    April 15, 2015 at 9:12 am

    You missed Byword, darling. ;)

    • Matthew Hughes
      April 30, 2015 at 3:29 pm

      Yet another Markdown editor? Isn't it just like iA Writer, but not as good?

  7. Shaun
    April 15, 2015 at 5:29 am

    For students at many universities, MS Office is free, so it may actually be the most complete and cheapest solution. For a number of situations, it is also required, but other programs might be more suitable for productivity, depending on the person. Depending on what I am writing, I might use a combination of writing tools. It might also be time to simplify a little.

    • Matthew Hughes
      April 30, 2015 at 3:30 pm

      I'm the same way. I write using a broad variety of tools and applications.

  8. JonGl
    April 14, 2015 at 9:36 pm

    I'm utterly disappointed that you overlooked Nisus Writer--Yes, the Pro version is expensive, and even Lite is not so cheap, but it is a heavy weight at least as good as Word, and much more writer-friendly. It really deserves a look-see. It's my go-to word processor.

    • Matthew Hughes
      April 30, 2015 at 3:24 pm

      Yeah, but it's ugly as sin, expensive, and I don't really know what the advantage of Nisus is over anything else. Why do you like it?

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